Brendan Lemon: Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote The King and I in 1951, during the height of the Cold War, so it makes sense that some R & H experts think of the show as the team’s Cold War show. For us, in 2015, the central global issue involves Islam and the developing world. How does this affect the way we view The King and I?
Bartlett Sher: My introduction to the problem that this play poses came in college when I studied the relationship between traditional and modern cultures, particularly in regard to women. That theme is what drew me most to this piece. The struggle between traditional and modern cultures carries within it the capacity for actual change. And the great thing about R & H musicals is that people learn from their mistakes. Nellie Forbush changes. The King changes.
BL: In The King and I, we see Anna teaching girls. That seems revolutionary, especially in light of the Nicholas Kristof remark I know you find inspiring: that in our day the most dangerous thing in the developing world is the education of women -- giving them books.
BS: For me this is rooted in the story of Tuptim. We need to make clear that she represents a tributary relation between Burma and Siam, a sexual gift to ensure an alliance. That is the root of a deep and profound injustice. In "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," we learn that Tuptim is the more sophisticated one in regard to power dynamics, and is challenging authority. A story about injustice needs change agents. Tuptim is a change agent in part because she is willing to take greater risks and seek justice for herself and for a basic human right.
BL: With Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we see the power of giving a young girl a book.
BS: Yes. One of the pre-eminent things we know about King Mongkut, on whom the title character is based, is that he had a fundamental belief in the power of education, including girls. He was a scientific king who thought education was vital. That education would be the salvation of his nation.
BL: For many years now, some productions of The King and I have cut material, so as not to risk offending contemporary sensibilities. You are sensitive to the social questions, yet you are not afraid of the material as it was written. In fact, you think it is worth exploring.
BS: Yes. For example, I’m keeping “Western People Funny”, which is often cut. Once you can redo that number from the point of view of, in this case, the dominant culture, you can have irony about situation. If you do it from the point of view of lowly easterners who don’t understand what’s going on then it would be received very differently. If you take older versions and tilt them back then you can change how they land.
BL: Rodgers and Hammerstein shows have stood the test of time in part because they allow for such evolving interpretations.
BS: The truth is that they were serious artists. They may have had their own era’s point of view on the material, but there are a lot of really extraordinary things about what they did. And you have to hold on to them.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.